Thursday, 20 June 2019

Exploring Ancient Dish Divining

I decided to conclude first semester with a discussion of lecanomancy within the reading group I run at The University of Queensland. The discussion started well as I amused some students by walking into our booked room to remove students using it as a study space while wearing my witch's hat.
I love introducing students to ancient forms of magic like this for multiple reasons, but especially because it highlights how different antiquity was to today and it helps people to better understand these differences. The problem with discussing magic is that it is easy for people today to discount it and belittle it. I was reacquainting myself with some standard texts on ancient magic when I came across the following point:
Ancient magic and modern science have some of the same goals. They also formulate laws—laws that happen to be true in the case of science but largely false (from our point of view) in the case of magic. The expectations are the same as well: both magic and scientific technology promise to give us powers that we, as individuals, do not possess.
Today, we use the increasingly complex technology that is at our disposal without really knowing how and why it works. When it breaks down, we call in an expert to repair it, or we throw it away. In our trust that, ultimately, technology will always work for us, we are like the people of ancient times who relied on magic that seemed to work for them and had worked for their ancestors for a very long time.1
I love this quote as it highlights how we aren't so different. It also reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke' third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Fortunately there has been quite a bit of research published lately addressing why and how religion worked psychologically (consider the research of Sarah Iles Johnston in the further reading), but it should also be remembered that even some people in antiquity called some magic out as fake.2
There are numerous varieties of divination but I chose lecanomancy because of its great antiquity; it is mentioned in passing in the book of Genesis (44.5) and its use in Babylon by the 18th century BCE at the very latest. This means that this form of divination was at least 2000 years old by the time the papyri and inscriptions I meant to discuss had been written.
Lecanomancy is named from the Greek terms for dish, pot, or pan - λεκος, λεκανη, λεκανος, but the nouns for a dish-diviner, λεκανομαντις, or dish-divining, λεκανομαντεια, are not terribly frequent. It also appears that any kind of vessel could be used.
I have written up all the research I conducted for this discussion into a paper I have posted to Academia, simply because it is extraordinarily heavy with references to various ancient sources and modern discussions - material which is rather heavy for a simple blog post. If you want to know more, I strongly recommend you read it here. It goes into some background on Babylonian "oil omen compendiums", and a detailed analysis of four texts I set as reading for the group and includes those texts. Here I will instead discuss the demonstration of lecanomancy I undertook, a topic I cover at the end of the Academia paper.


First I made a divining dish styled after a sherd of a professional lecanomancer found in the Egyptian town of Antinoopolis. It is kept Museo del Vicino Oriente (Inv. No. 181/664) in Rome, but the only photograph of it I can find is that published in a source book of Ancient Greek magic (see the paper for details). Based on this, I made a melamine version.

I did not try to match the medium as numerous media were described as used for dish divining, given that the texts I set included a clay pot, a bronze vessel, a white saucer or a bronze cup, or a copper cup. This variety suggests that there was no particular type of vessel specific for this divining, so a cheap bowl from my local cheap store was what I used. I engraved it using a scribe typically used for artist dry point engraving. I used a sharpie pen and rubbing alcohol to push some ink into the engraved text. I had first used a sharpie to write the the formula, but it proved not to be particularly permanent when water was added to the dish. The engraving consists of a magical palindrome, written to reduce it by one letter with each iteration, and a spell:
Hither to me, self-begotten god, (created) without cast seed, father of yourself, mother of yourself, invisible, incorporeal, ruler---- hidden----- true (?) —.
On reflection, I wish I had chosen an example using a shorter palindrome, as this is one of the longest recorded. To read a little more on this palindrome see this discussion of it having been found on an amulet from Livescience.
I brought five tea candles to light to provide an artificial light as many divinatory rituals took place at night, as shown in the last example. I do not have any ancient style lamps, so tea candles were used instead. I brought some olive oil and an eye dropper to apply the oil to the water. I also printed the pages from the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris which has been digitised at their actual size.

These images can be found at and respectively.


Once at University, I had a student acquire some water from the nearest bathroom. According to one of the examples of lecanomancy I had students read about, the type of water you used should reflect the nature of the supernatural entity which you wished to contact:
… rainwater, if you call on the heavenly gods, seawater, if (you call) on the gods of the earth, river water, if you call on Osiris or Sarapis, spring water, if you call on the dead
I am not sure what kind of supernatural entity might be matched with this water source.
We then lit the candles after turning off the lights. I passed around the copy of the codex for students to look at and attempt reading with such a poor light source. While some thought at first it was reasonable, upon closer investigation it was deemed quite problematic.
Because drops of oil were described in the early Babylonian oil omens, I first used the eye dropper to add drops of oil and watch their movement by candle light.

I continued to add drops of oil, to the dish, but eventually poured what oil I had in. You can see that the play of light on the oil is somewhat different here.

The way the oil looks under modern lighting typical in a university classroom is again somewhat different.

What would I do different?

I had not tried to experiment with this at home before I tried this with students, and as a result, I did not have enough oil to fill the surface completely. If I were to do this again, I would bring more oil than the third of a Masterfoods small spice bottle.
Students tried to read omens like those I had mentioned from the Babylonian oil omen lists, but I had not provided full lists as Babylonian lecanomancy was not meant to be the topic. If I were to do this again, I would gather such a list for students to use, and perhaps use blank individual bowls for each participant to use.


I found the experience helpful to understanding how this form of divination was used. One of the texts I set came from the Demotic Magical Papyri, and a couple of phrases in it said “Let my cup make the reflection (?) of heaven” and “you fill the top [of the water] with true oil”. Now the entire purpose of the demonstration was to help us better understand lecanomancy, and the experiment here made me think a little harder about these passages. Oil on water with specific light sources can appear variously. Consider the comparison of my photograph without flash to that of Chris Wood's with flash.

So while filling water’s surface with oil could create a reflective surface, the “reflection of heaven” statement might hark back to the Babylonian origins of lecanomancy. Oil omens used in Babylonian lecanomancy were described with celestial comparisons and metaphors because the light reflecting from the oil drops looked like heavenly bodies.3 While this is not as apparent in the first photograph taken without flash, it is undeniable in the second flash assisted photograph. So yes, this ritual might require the entire surface to be covered with oil and then reflecting the night sky, but there is another potential way to interpret the instructions.
Students found it an interesting experience too, and they informed me it helped them better appreciate material surrounding ancient divination and magic.
Truly, if you do want to know more details, read the paper I have posted to, "Exploring Ancient Lecanomancy". If you don't have an account, you can log in with Facebook.

1 Luck, G. (2006). Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 1.
2 Hippolytus, Refutations of the Heresies 4.35 is but one example.
3 Anor & Cohen (2018): 203.

Further Reading

Betz, H. (1986). The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells. The University of Chicago Press.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Listening to Homer in Antiquity

On Friday night (22nd of March) The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society participated in the world-wide reading of Homer's Iliad as part of the thirteenth Festival Europeen Latin Grec. While the attendance could have been better, we were running up against multiple events on campus, and despite my running late to organise it, we had people attending whom I'd never seen at one of our events before. I decided that in addition to the reading, I'd present something about how listening to Homer was something variously experienced in antiquity. This blog is primarily that presentation.
In addition to my presentation, we read book 18 of Homer's Iliad, each of four readers reading a different translation: the Penguin Books 1966 translation, the Loeb Classical Library version, Alexander Pope's rhyming couplets, and Chapman's early 17th century poetic translation. We made some jokes about how often the rhyming couplets of Pope and Chapman failed to rhyme, but speaking with some attendees after the conclusion, my attention was drawn to something I had not realised; despite to frequent lack of rhyming in Chapman's translation, his meter was apparent to listeners. As Chapman was read by me last, there was little dialogue as the majority of the last 150 lines of book 18 are the description of Achilles' shield. Some audience members noted that they got "caught up in the rhythm of the work" and only when Vulcan spoke to Thetis and she left Olympus did they get drawn out of the rhythm. I was amazed to hear them say this, because I had not consciously recognised the meter despite reading it. It was a wonderful accidental discovery that could only be realised by listening to Homer.Below is an amended "script" of my presentation from Friday night.

Listening to Homer in Antiquity
For Homer, the boundary between recitation and reading has become less sharp.
Peter Parsons, 2012, “Homer: Papyri and Performance”, p. 17.
By reading Homer and people listening, we are tapping into a tradition millennia old.
The very concept of listening to epic poetry is as old as epic poetry itself. Consider the first song sung by the “minstrel” at the Phaeacian court in the Odyssey:
...the Muse moved the minstrel to sing of the glorious deeds of men, from that lay of which the fame had then reached broad heaven, the quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles, son of Peleus, how once they strove with violent words at a rich feast of the gods, and Agamemnon, king of men, was glad at heart that the best of the Achaeans were quarreling; for thus Phoebus Apollo, in giving his response, had told him that it should be, in sacred Pytho, when he crossed the threshold of stone to inquire of the oracle. For then the beginning of woe was rolling upon Trojans and Danaans alike through the will of great Zeus. This song the famous minstrel sang;
Homer, Odyssey, Book 8, lines 73-83.
We did not sing, but the very act of listening to poems like the Iliad is as old as the Iliad itself. There is a great deal of argument about whether or not the Iliad and Odyssey were oral traditions, but if you accept that idea as many scholars do, the act of listening was as big an element in the construction of these poems as the act of their recitation.
Now the minstrel here was called an ἀοιδός, a singer, but this was not the only kind of performer of epic poetry in antiquity.  I spoke about two other types of performers who allowed people to listen to Homer: Rhapsodes and Homeristai.

Rhapsodes were professional poetry reciters. While they primarily recited Homer, they also included other poets’ works within their repertoires. 
This term first appeared in the fifth century BCE, and their name literally meant “song-stitcher”. It is thought be some that the early efforts of these “song-stitchers” helped to formulate the Iliad and Odyssey from oral traditions into a more standard work which was eventually written down. I love the term “song-stitcher” as it gives a sense that these men might have originally composed works by drawing on various traditions; I imagine it being something like extemporaneous jazz performers drawing upon various traditions within their art to eventually form what we consider standards”. This early history of the rhapsodes is unfortunately lost to us.
So what about what we do know?
Well we know what they look like. Here is the depiction of a rhapsode on an Attic red-figure neck amphora. 
It is thought to date from 490-480 BCE and you might be able to just make out the words of his first line is written coming from his mouth: “Even so once in Tiryns...” (an unplaced epic fragment only known from this pot). While this is an Attic pot, it was excavated from an Etruscan tomb in Vulci.
Please note the staff held by the rhapsode. Our evidence for its association with these performances is earlier than the word rhapsode itself. The Greek poet Hesiod (circa 700 BCE) described it thus:
So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternal, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.
Hesiod, Theogony, line 29-34.
Please note that there are also words on the plinth on which the rhapsode here stands on for his performance. This states: “He is handsome”.
The idea that the rhapsode couldn’t be ugly and successful is hinted at in some of the texts which have survived. 
Plato puts the following statement in Socrates’ mouth:
I must say I have often envied you rhapsodes, Ion, for your art: for besides that it is fitting to your art that your person should be adorned and that you should look as handsome as possible, the necessity of being conversant with a number of good poets, and especially with Homer, the best and divinest poet of all, and of apprehending his thought and not merely learning off his words, is a matter of envy; since a man can never be a good rhapsodewithout understanding what the poet says. For the rhapsode ought to make himself an interpreter of the poet’s thought to his audience; and to do this properly without knowing what the poet means is impossible. So one cannot but envy all this.
Plato, Ion, 530b-c.
Now do not come away with the impression that Socrates truly admired rhapsodes; he goes on the dialogue to completely rubbish poor Ion the rhapsode.  Another former student of Socrates, Xenophon (Symposium, 3.6), puts the following words into Socrates’ mouth in response to the question 
'Do you know any tribe of men more stupid than the rhapsodes?'
'No, and the reason is clear: they do not know the inner meaning of the poems.'
But you also must not get the impression that this was an entertainment of the ancient world’s lower classes. According to the second century CE writer Plutarch, the following exchange took place at the wedding celebration of King Ptolemy the first, so in the late fourth century CE.
The rhapsode was the talk of everybody – the one who, at the wedding of Ptolemy who, in marrying his own sister was considered to be committing a deed unnatural and unholy, began with the following words: ‘And Zeus summoned Hera his sister, his wife’
Plutarch, Table Talk, 736e, Quoting Iliad, Book 18, 356.
This indicates that at the wedding of one of the most powerful men in the classical world at that time, a rhapsode was either a member of his entourage or was hired to provide entertainment at his wedding. 
We also know a little about the competitions that rhapsodes entered. In addition to the references to both the Epidauros and Athenian competitions that the rhapsode Ion was described as competing at in Plato’s dialogue, we have numerous inscriptions from all over the Greek world. These inscriptions records prizes for or winners of rhapsode competitions throughout the religious festivals of the Greek world. And of course at each of these, multiple rhapsodesperformed and were listened to. From these inscriptions we know that these continued down into the late second or early first century BCE, but then disappear (West 2010, 10).
They then reappear in festival inscriptions in the second century CE and continue possibly as late as the fourth century, but we can’t be sure that the natures of these performances were the same as the earlier ones of this name.

The second kind of Homer performance I want to tell you about are somewhat different. That is the performances of the Homeristai. These were performers who re-enacted Homeric scenes as a kind of troupe. You will often find these performances described as “low-class”, but that is often a term used by scholars who have focussed their attention on ancient literature and tend to view it as something better. These performances were enjoyed by a far broader audience. While we might enjoy a night at the theatre, the performance of Homeristai is the guilty pleasure we binge watched on the weekend; this was one of the popular entertainments of the ancient world. 
Homeristai might not be immortalised on a Grecian urn, but he can be the figure on a piece of papyri, like this one from Oxyrhynchus from the second century CE (P. Oxy. XLII.3001). 
Interestingly, we know that a Homeristes was paid 448 drachmae to perform at games in Oxyrhyonchus (P. Oxy. III.520) in the same century, an amount which was list than that given to a mime performer (not mime as we know it), but significantly more than the money provided to a pantomime dancer; despite some of the hate these performers received from the intellectuals of antiquity, some of these performers were getting on very well.
So what was their performance like?
We have a description from Petronius’ Satyricon (59) which described it thus:
A troop came in at once and clashed spear on shield. Trimalchio sat up on his cushion, and when the reciters talked to each other in Greek verse, as their conceited way is, he intoned Latin from a book.
The attitude of Homeristai included in this work should not be taken at face value because this description is made to make the rich former slave, Trimalchio, look like a buffoon, but we get an image of multiple performers re-enacting Homeric stories in costume, and armed. 
The also seem to have been a little “method” in their acting, as bleeding was a part of their presentation. Now we know tomatoes were not available in antiquity, and as such, these performers did not have a great deal of options for the provision of fake blood. As a result, they used the real deal. According the dream interpretation manual of Artemidorus (4.2):
...for just as the Homeristai make wounds and draw blood, without any intention of killing, so also does the surgeon.
We also know that they used both real and prop weapons in their performances. Thanks to a second century CE ancient Greek novelist, Achilles Tatius, we get a glimpse:
Now there was among the passengers one of those actors who recite Homer in the public theatres: he armed himself with his Homeric gear and did the same for his companions, and did his best to repel the invaders. ...We saw there [in the Homeristai’s chest] a cloak and a dagger; the latter had a handle a foot long with a very short blade fitted to it not more than three inches in length. Menelaus took out the dagger and casually turned it over, blade downwards, when the blade suddenly shot out from the handle so that handle and blade were now of equal size; and when turned back again, the blade sank back to its original length. This had doubtless been used in the theatre by that unlucky actor for sham murders
Achilles TatiusLeucippe and Clitophon 3.20.4-5 and 6-7.
We even find graffiti in the backrooms of theatres in the Roman period, in this case at Aphrodisias in Caria, stating that in a particular room the equipment of one Demetrius the Homeristes was kept. 
When we consider these hints together, we get an impression of multiple performers from Petronius, but individuals named or described elsewhere. 
However, we know that mime performances included multiple people, but only a single mime is written on the Oxyrhynchus papyrus account. The amounts paid would make sense that they were for multiple performers, 476 drachmae for the mime and 448 for the Homeristesespecially in comparison to the 100 and something 4 drachmae for the dancer, a solo performer if you don’t include musicians.
The Homeristes in Achilles Tatius’ novel had enough arms to arm multiple people on the ship against pirates.
And Demetrius the Homeristes at Aphrodisias needed a whole room for his props. 
It seems obvious that these performances did require multiple performers.
So how did these performers use the text of Homer?
We have been fortunate to have some papyri survive which seem to have been adapted for theatrical performance, perhaps those of Homeristai. The most famous example is that of the so-called Bankes Homer (see below).
This papyrus is a copy of most of book 24 of the Iliad which has its speeches identified with a character’s name in the margin, including the narrator or poet as his own character. The text has been rewritten for use with multiple performers rather than a single rhapsode.
In all, ten examples of papyri which have been prepared in this manner have survived, dating from the first to third centuries CE, and all but one feature the text of Iliad.
Listening to Homer was something done for centuries in antiquity. I don't know whether Chapman's or Pope's translations were recited by their authors, but the sometimes odd rhyming attempts made them a little awkward for us, but it was well worth doing. We took a break for refreshments midway through, but I approximate that it took us an hour to read through the book.

Achilles TatiusLeucippe and Clitophon, tr. S. Gaselee. Harvard University Press, 1969.
Homer, The Odyssey, tr. A. T. Murray.  Harvard University Press, 1919.
Hesiod, Theogony, tr. Hugh. G. Evelyn-White. Harvard University Press, 1914.
B. Grenfell and A. Hunt 1898 Oxyrhynchus Papyri Volume III, Egypt Exploration Fund
Plato, Ion, tr. W.R.M. Lamb, Harvard University Press, 1925.
Petronius, Satyricon, tr. Michael Heseltine, Harvard University Press, 1913.
Plutarch, Table Talk, 736e (this translation is from Nagy 1996).
Xenophon, SymposiumtrsE. C. Marchant, O. J. Todd, Harvard University Press, 1979. 
Charlotte Roueche, 1993 Performers and Partisan at Aphrodisias in the Roman and Late Roman Periods, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Gregory Nagy 1996 “Homer as Script” in Poetry as performance: Homer and beyond, Cambridge University Press, pp. 153-188.
Parsons, Peter 2012 “Homer: Papyri and Performance” in eds. G. Bastianini and A. Casanova Papiri OmericiStudi e Testi di Papirologia N.S. 14 pp. 17-27.
Martin L. West 2010 “Rhapsodes at Festivals” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphikvol. 173, pp. 1-13.

A little more information regarding the images, including better quality images, here can be found here:
Homeristes papyrus

Sunday, 10 February 2019

University of Queensland and the Ramsay Centre: the submission I couldn't make because of word limits on submissions

On Thursday staff submissions regarding The University of Queensland's expression of interest in hosting the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. I wrote the following not realising that strict word limits were proposed and that different elements were separated for feedback. I love my University, and in an environment of ever increasing funding cuts I understand why the University has sought to find a way to receive this funding while trying to maintain its integrity. I still don't want the Ramsay Centre.
Rather than waste my effort, I decided to post it here:
I acknowledge that the University has devoted a great deal of time and energy to creating extended majors which have addressed many of the concerns that I had about pedagogical approaches to Western Civilisation as a concept. I have written in the past that the concept of the "great books" create a curated vision of the past which does not necessarily reflect the historical reality, so I am glad to see the intention to critically approach this concept.
Unfortunately all the work the University has done cannot address my major concern about the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, and that is its name and the unfortunate associations within the current socio-political milieu.
Tony Abbott's comments in his Quadrant article that the "key to understanding the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is that it's not merely about Western Civilisation but in favour of it" has to some extent made this Centre a poisoned chalice for all universities.
His comments imply that the Ramsay Foundation's board will have an extraordinary degree of influence over how courses are run and how staff are recruited. The reported behaviour of the Ramsay Foundation towards ANU last year has added to this perception. The University's decision to keep the material relating to what has been proposed from all bar University staff I think is also a mistake. By not being transparent with our students, alumni, and broader community, and not giving them a chance to see the proposed pathways, the University has done little to address this perception. Perceptions matter, and I think it would be unfortunate for the University to be perceived as allowing undue influence in relation to this matter.The other problem with Abbott's statement is that it fed into not just Australia's history wars, but into a broader misuse of the terminology "Western Civilisation" as an innocent-sounding code for many white supremacist ideologies. As someone within the discipline of classics and ancient history, this has become an even more contentious term. The most blatant and obvious example is the event which occurred at the 2019 Society of Classical Studies annual meeting which required a special statement from the Board of Directors to condemn racist acts and speech. At a panel devoted to the future of classics where much of the discussion was addressing the need for diversification within the discipline, an independent scholar during the discussion component spoke about the need to "protect the idea of Western civilisation" and then addressed Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican classicist, and informed him that he only got his position at Princeton because he was black (for more details see here).
Issues surrounding the concept of Western civilisation have become imbued with concepts of white supremacy in the areas of classics and ancient history and medieval history (and perhaps in other later historical studies for which I cannot speak). When you combine that with Tony Abbott's statement in Quadrant and his known position within the so-called culture war, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation brings with it a metaphorical stain. That perceived stain is my greatest concern about entering this agreement. By adopting the Ramsay Centre, UQ will be perceived by many as aligning itself with one side of Australia's culture war, as well as seen as supporting white supremacist ideas. I would hate for my University to be seen as such, because as an extension, all staff and students, especially those within the aligned disciplines, might be viewed in the same way. It is a horrible situation for individuals, and I think it is a major risk that cannot be managed by the University.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Pomegranate Rinds and Heating Ancient Medicaments: getting a better understanding of ancient medical directions

When researching ancient medicine certain direction keep popping up in both Latin and Greek which leave you pondering "how would that work." For me lately the phrase has been "warmed in a pomegranate rind." This direction was given in the direction for various medicaments, but no further information was given. The writers expected the reader to know how this was done. So today, I decided to see how easy it was to do this. 
I started with what I thought would help: a pomegranate, a candle, something in which to place the candle which would hold up the rind, and something to warm, butter (bile was commonly warmed like this, but that isn't something you can by from the supermarket).
First job was to empty my pomegranate. I'd never had anything to do with this fruit prior to this, so that was an education. I had imagined a thicker rind, with more white pith, a bit like an overgrown passionfruit. Well, that was wrong.
The fibres holding the seeds together aren't the easiest things to break through either, but I managed to empty half the fruit. This was how it looked after I had rinsed out the left over juice.
I'd set up my candle holder, and placed my rind above the flame like so:
And the damn flame went out! I was going to have to hold it up. So I added my knob of butter:
And proceeded to hold it over the flame. First, it never surprises me how much heat a tea candle can generate, but it surprised me how much heat the pomegranate rind conducts. Also as the rind heats it became softer and gives way under your hands. At some points I was holding the rind well above the candle and my fingers were getting uncomfortably warm. Even at this height:
My brother Rick was kind enough to assist me in this and is holding the ruler for this shot.
In very little time, my butter was melting and was definitely warmed through. This photo was taken less than 10 minutes after I began this.
I chose to melt butter for a specific reason. I wanted to know why people were directed to warm medicaments in this manner. Warming material was common in ancient medical texts. It was even said that all medicaments dripped into ears had to be warmed. But warming could take place in a variety of ways. Some directions called for liquids to be warmed in a strigil (the device used to scrape oil from the body at the baths), or in cups or pots. Warming was sometimes not even directed, just expected. So warming in a pomegranate rind suggests that this method does something to the medicaments. By warming butter, I could tell what kind of a difference it made by safely comparing the taste. It should be noted that numerous materials used medicinally in the ancient world are poisonous, and you shouldn't just taste things without giving consideration to safety.
I had been told by a colleague that pomegranate rind is incredibly bitter, and it was used as a curdling agent in antiquity, so I had expected the butter to become bitter. It didn't. It had taken up some of the flavour of the fruit, but it wasn't bitter. In any event, warming material in the rind of a pomegranate definitely would have affected the medicaments, and as such this method was certainly an important element of the preparation.
But this still left me with another half of a pomegranate with which to experiment.
I have only just finished writing a commentary on ear treatments, and Celsus described the creation of a medicament which used the pomegranate heating method. Celsus wrote:
"If again the ears have pus in them as well, it is proper to pour in ... the juice of a sweet pomegranate warmed in its rind, to which a little myrrh is added." 
And I have some myrrh. And its incredible how much juice come out of a pomegranate. So I started my second experiment.
I hadn't expected the myrrh to float. 
For some reason this time I was able to hold the rind closer to the candle. For the majority of time I managed to hold it around an inch above the flame. This was somewhat different to the first experiment. Unfortunately I did spill some of the juice at one point when I tried to look at the bottom of the rind.
All up, I held the rind over the candle for twenty minutes, and in less than half that time I could see whisps of steam rising from the surface of the liquid. That steam had the smell of myrrh. Not long after that, all the myrrh which had been floating had fallen to the bottom of the rind. At around 15 minutes in there were even some tiny (1-2mm in diameter) bubbles. The steam become more obvious after that, and it could be smelled from further away.
While it doesn't photograph well, the steam was still rising after I placed the rind down on the table at the end of the heating. The lighter patch I've circled here was steam.
At the end I tipped the remaining juice out:
The dark spots that you can see in the bottom of the rind are what remains of the myrrh. I fished some pieces out, and they have a soft crumbly texture which myrrh does not normally have. 
My brother and I tasted the juice. Yuck, doesn't even begin to cover it. It is horribly bitter, and likely tasted worse as a result of my tasting the non-heated juice immediately prior to tasting the doctored juice. I think the bitterness must be the result of the myrrh, but the slight bubbling of the juice might suggest that the more bitter elements of the rind had released into the juice. I would like to conduct this experiment once more without the myrrh to see what difference that might have made. No I didn't pour any of it into my ear. That would not only be gross, but my ear is not currently purulent and my GP would pitch a fit.
So at the end I have a pomegranate rind containing butter (it has started to congeal as I've been writing this blog), and a pomegranate rind with a significantly blackened skin. At no point did the fruit touch the flame, so that is likely the result of candle smoke.
I now know that this was a reasonably simple thing to do. While I used a candle, I imagine that an oil lamp would work just as easily. Yes, the rind gets a bit hot, but at no time unreasonably. The rind also gets softer, but that was not the cause of my spill; I'm just a klutz. All up, despite what I might do different in the future, what I sought more than anything else was to see how easy it was to warm something this way. Very easy would be the answer. It might have taken longer in antiquity because I do not know if modern hybridisation has made the rind thinner, but even if that was the case, I don't imagine it would have made it all that much more problematic. I also know now that when doctors recommended this, they did so for a reason, and that swapping heating methods would have compromised the treatment. All in all it was a successful experiment.
Now I have to figure out what to do with my pomegranate seeds and remaining juice. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

What do Stan Lee and Homer have in common?

Today comic book nerds and superhero movie fans mourned the passing of Stan Lee. They knew this day would come. I first saw this meme years ago:

I don't consider myself a comic nerd, but I have seen most of the Marvel films and watched for the inevitable cameo. As an ancient historian with an interest in ancient pop culture, I've often enjoyed drawing comparisons between mythology and comic book movies, and I have appreciated the similarities between them.
So what do Homer and Stan Lee have in common. Sure, Stan's eyesight was failing (he was legally blind), and Homer was thought to have been blind, but that's not what I'm getting at.
No, their commonality to me is the attribution to them of characters which went on to be reimagined by numerous storytellers afterwards. Yes, Stan Lee created brilliant characters, but they became the prototypes for various retellings of stories by numerous comic book writers and screenplay writers afterwards, much as the Homeric cycle was rewritten throughout antiquity time and time again (I've written on this theme before here). Stan Lee had no problems with his creations being reimagined for new audiences, and if Homer existed as an individual (yes I know a big if) as his work was thought to have been composed as an oral epic, I like to think that he too would have enjoyed seeing his characters reworked by others over time.
The reports on Stan Lee's death on Australia's ABC television made a huge point that his his heroes were deliberately made imperfect and more human, and each time I heard that phrase today, I was immediately drawn to the idea that these characters shared this in common with Greek gods and heroes. I have always seen Iron Man as Prometheus for example. I don't know if this was deliberate, but I do know that the world Stan Lee created in which to place his heroes was influenced by the classical world: consider the evil organisation, Hydra for example. I also think that a family tree of the Greek gods and heroes would be as confusing as an X-Men family tree; they are both confusing and have variations depending on which retelling of the stories you focus on.  Stan Lee also seems to have been a fan of the Latin language. Excelsior (more noble) was one of his favourite words, and at least one of his "Stan's Soapbox" rants from 1968 (it was widely shared today on social media addressing bigotry) was signed off with pax et justitia "peace and justice". 
Stan Lee created characters which inspired writers over decades to rework these into new times for new audiences, just as the Homeric epics did. I do wonder whether in a couple of thousand years time we will be comparing a wealth of later literature to a small portion of Stan Lee's original comics just as we currently compare Greek and Latin poems and plays to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It wouldn't surprise me if people were writing blogs doing so right now. Given the nature of the characters he created, I also wouldn't be surprised if they were still being reimagined for new audiences just as Greek heroes still are today. I also think Stan Lee would have loved that.
Excelsior, Stan Lee (1922-2018).

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Marshmallow and a treatment for so-called gout: experimental ancient history

Because I wanted to be an archaeologist as a child, I have a very soft spot for experimental archaeology. It gives fantastic insights into the past which help us to better understand it. Alas, I am but a humble ancient historian instead, but I still love the concepts of experimentation to better inform us of the past, and today I have worked on a little experimental ancient history in the field of ancient pharmacology. Why won't I call it experimental archaeology? Because I am using modern technology (my stove) not fire. 
I have just concluded my research on the Plinii Medicina's recommended treatment for podagra. Podagra is often translated as gout, but this isn't particularly accurate. Podagra referred to a number of different rheumatological or arthritic complaints of the feet, which could include of the treatments suggested was boiled marshmallow root applied with axle-grease as a plaster. As luck would have it, my aunt had plenty of marshmallows growing on her farm, and was coming to visit. She agreed to bring one with her. 
This is what it looked like after being transported in a bag over 600 km and kept in a bag for a five days.
I had explained that I was only needing the root, but they brought the whole plant. This was rather handy. As those people involved looking at ancient botany and pharmacology are aware, identification is a very fraught issue. While my aunt and mother identified this plant as marshmallow, it might not be the marshmallow I was looking for. Given that I am studying Roman treatments in Australia, this is even more problematic. 
With a little work on google, I identified this plant as Malva parviflora, also called cheeseweed, cheeseweed mallow, and marshmallow. According to Beck's translation of Dioscorides' De Materia Medica, I should be looking for Althaea officianalis. Both plants are members of the mallow family. 
While I was incredibly disappointed, I decided to go ahead with my intended experiment. Google did not exist in Roman times, and neither did the modern classifications of plants. In antiquity, if someone said a plant was marshamallow, or I should say ibiscum, then that was what it was. In addition to this, adulteration of materia medica was an acknowledged problem in antiquity. On that principle, I decided to go ahead with my plan. 
For such a large plant the root is rather small by comparison. 

My aunt said it was extremely difficult to pull up owing to the long tap root. I cut it off.
The root had been a little damaged and I pulled apart at the naturally formed split:
I found this very interesting as I have read about numerous medical recipes which had required the "bark of a root". This phrase has bamboozled me for years now, and this is the first moment that it has ever made sense. This outer layer of the root is what must be meant by this.
Now I know I said I cut the root off. That doesn't truly reflect what I did. I sawed through the root with a serrated edged knife from multiple sides until I got through it. This stuff is tough! Fortunately there was a very stuff strand which I could cut through which I used like the string you find on cheese portions which allowed me to open the root up fairly easily like this:
It is this inner root that I decided to use. All up I ended up with a rather small amount of inner root from the plant:
This was barely ten centimetres long. In addition to this, its damn hard. It took a considerable amount of force to snap the larger piece in two.
Now the text of the Medicina Plinii states: hibisci radices coctas cum axungia misces et cataplasma pedibus ponis. I translate this as: you mix boiled marshmallow roots with axle-grease and you apply the plaster to the feet.
So I needed to boil my root. While an earlier writer, Scribonius Largus (chapter 160), described boiling it in water and honey and Celsus (4.31.4-5) said to boil in wine, but because the writer of my text didn't specify what it was to boiled in, I boiled it in water:
After 30 minutes they were still as hard as they were when I started. 
After an hour I did manage to piece them with a tooth pick. Barely.
After two hours it looked like this:
I ended up splitting this piece up along the grain and continued boiling it for another 30 minutes. After that I just stopped. The root wasn't terribly softer than it was when I started, even those pieces I'd split, and I thought it highly improbable that a person suffering from podagra would have waited that long. I have arthritis in my feet, so I feel comfortable speaking for my imaginary ancient patient. So I drained my root and placed it in my mortar. And pounded it a bit. It looked like this first:
I pounded some more. It took a hell of a lot of effort. I also chopped up some of the softer pieces of root with a pair of scissors. After a great deal of effort and some pain, my roots looked like this:
I decided that was good enough so I needed to add some axle-grease. While we use petroleum-based axle-grease today, in antiquity they used lard or suet. No I don't know what their carts smelled like, and I don't want to think about it too much. I have always imagined that when referring to axle-grease medical writers were expecting their reader to go get some grease from a cart. I used some freshly purchased pig's lard which I'd left out of the fridge for a bit. In a nod to the idea that you don't want it to be too fresh, I let my cat lick it. 
Adding the lard little-by-little, the thing I noticed first was a change in smell. The root had a rather subtle not unpleasant scent, but adding lard to it made it smell unpleasant. I can only imagine how much worse it would have smelt with stale lard. In the end, it looked like this:
Celsus (4.31.4-5) described marshmallow applications as heating and recommended their use at night, so this treatment was more likely to have been used on the forms of podagra which weren't accompanied by a burning sensation (so it was probably not used on patients like me). I put some on my hand:

Those pieces of root which I didn't cut down with scissors didn't adhere as well, but the smaller cut pieces did so extremely well. I didn't notice any heating, but this could have been because I boiled in water instead of wine, didn't use stale grease (which wasn't mentioned by Celsus) or the fact that this wasn't the marshmallow they meant. I also didn't leave it on for terribly long because I wasn't comfortable with a strange root and pig's fat on my hand. 
As you can see from the photos, I have a fair amount of plant material on my hand, and I still had some in my mortar. The single piece of root would likely have been sufficient for a foot at the very least.
Some reflections on this experiment:
⚫️ I wonder whether it was possible to go to an ancient apothecary and buy cooked marshmallow roots? Or perhaps finely cut up marshmallow roots. All up it took me more than three hours to prepare this using a stove. If preprepared roots could be bought this would save considerable time. The pain of podagra can flare up quickly and waiting for more than three hours for relief would be horrid. Also, if this disease was also affecting the hands, it would be nigh on impossible to prepare for yourself.
⚫️ I had assumed the "root-cutters" as referred to in Sophocles' play were those who went and gathered the roots used. Given how difficult it was to cut this root, perhaps cutting roots was a specialist job when preparing medicaments.
⚫️ As stated above, I now know what is meant be "root bark".
⚫️ I followed the most basic description provided by the author and had a great deal of difficulty. It makes me wonder how much knowledge was just assumed to exist in his readers' minds. This is also relevant to the question of plant identification.
Things I would do differently:
⚫️ Aquire some Althaea officianalis and try this again. While it would be a good idea to allow the lard to go "stale", I don't know that my stomach could stand that.
⚫️ Given the difficulty I had, perhaps I should have tried to cut the roots finer before boiling them. This would have been very difficult, but perhaps it was expected.